The Sweet Spot

By Ramzy Nasrallah on July 19, 2017 at 1:05 pm
rickey dudley torching penn state, 1995
Rickey Dudley, 1995

It has frustrated Buckeye fans for decades now.

For some reason, the offense can't seem to locate it. Coaches know it's there somewhere but stop trying to tap it during games. It is routinely ignored despite its ability to change momentum and increase tempo. It's been overlooked on nearly every Saturday, season after season.

It feels as though Ohio State's offensive coaches could not find a tight end even if you gave them a map and a head start.

Over two decades have passed since Walt Harris' offense threw split backs at defenses to pull them out laterally, stretched the field longitudinally with track stars at the flanker and split-end positions and then forced some poor weak-side linebacker to cover Rickey Dudley with no one else in sight. That was fun. We should do that again. But we don't.

ohio state beats michigan again
PICTURED: Marcus Baugh erasing Taco Charlton

Dudley, who was also a hell of a basketball player, had 37 catches and 7 touchdowns in 1995 in Harris' scheme. He went pro and the Buckeyes reloaded with John Lumpkin, who only pulled down 17 catches in both his junior and senior seasons - but a lot of those were for points. He was a situational red zone mismatch, which was how the coaches chose to use him. That was fine. Field goals are stupid anyway.

Lumpkin also played for the Buckeyes' varsity basketball team. Both had ballerina feet, soft hands, truculent route-running, oak tree size and the speed to match. It was like trying to guard a minivan. The best that defenses could do was sort of dance around them and wave their arms frantically. Ohio State didn't forget about or fail to find either of them when it wanted to.

Since then, Buckeye fans have been mystified. Why can't we regularly find the tight end? Well, for starters - it's a hybrid tucked into a tight space that has so many other obvious options for exploitation. That nub at the end of the line can do a lot if you choose to tease out its potential:

  • Catch passes
  • Line play
  • Isolation blocking
  • Tackle support
  • Offensive decoy
  • Rear/flank protection
  • Inside seal
  • Sweep lead

There's a lot going on and many other places to go. Plus, finding the tight end can be hard when your head is already spinning.

Earlier this week Jeremy Ruckert - the top TE in the country - committed to what's already a monster class. Dan crunched the numbers and your frustrated eyes aren't lying; other programs throw to the TE more than OSU does. Ruckert is the latest mismatch that Buckeye fans hope will find himself on the receiving end of many ropes thrown by any one of Ohio State's highly-acclaimed quarterbacks lined up to replace J.T. Barrett. It's a legacy of hope.

Post-Lumpkin, Ruckert follows in the footsteps of tight ends like Louis Irizarry, who never really contributed. Also Ryan Hamby, remembered more for what he failed to catch (don't click) than what he caught (just nine as a senior). Ben Hartsock had 33 catches in 2003, but his primary contribution to the program came in the locker room as the glue for the BCS Champions. Jeff Heuerman was that guy too, albeit with fewer catches. Both landed comfortably on NFL rosters.

Rory Nicol caught 11 balls as a senior. Jake Ballard caught 13, including that one. Nick Vannett grabbed 19 in both his junior and senior seasons. Jake Stoneburner led the team in 2011 with 14 catches in what was the final season of Jim Bollman being allowed by any program to decide anything of consequence. Stoney had 16 grabs in the undefeated 2012 season.

All of these guys were pretty good at blocking. Most of them made or are making significant NFL money.

None of them were all that good at being found during games, and their stats show it. The Ohio State offense has been spitting out 1,000-yard rushers and Silver Football winners from its backfield independent of who's been calling plays since Lumpkin matriculated, but TE has been a pass-catching novelty.

Marcus Baugh could conceivably match Rickey Dudley's 1995 receiving production this season. Really.

Urban Meyer's shiniest example of what TE greatness can look like in his offense is, unfortunately, a dead felon. But there's still no reason that a player who is taller than a receiver, faster than a lineman, bigger than a running back and generally covered by a guy he could condescendingly pat on the head mid-route can't pull down 25 passes and five touchdowns per season in his scheme.

Whenever Meyer - or new TE coach Kevin Wilson - have had these dudes, the neglect has predictably vanished. If Ohio State is going to finally tickle the tight end with precision and regularity, it's now. Zone Six put nobody on the Biletnikoff watch list when it was released this week (the MAC has six) so TE is prime for rediscovery, right now. 

By the way, the Buckeyes leading returning receiver is Marcus Baugh. You know what he plays.

Baugh caught 24 passes and showed some crispiness playing in an offense run by two guys who never quite figured out how to run it properly. Wilson coaching his position, Not Tim Beck coaching QBs and Baugh treating 2017 as an NFL interview should conceivably put him in Dudley's statistical territory (recall that Dudley had to compete with the Heisman and Biletnikoff winner for touches that season, which made his 1995 even more ridiculous).

Doing so would give Ohio State fans much-needed relief following decades of frustration. The offense can only improve following last season's implosion and every variable that would impact its production has been upgraded, so this might just be the year the Buckeyes finally remember they have a tight end.

And hey - if it isn't, there's always the next one. They'll have to find it eventually, right?

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